Visions de l’Amen

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Published: 25th May, 2016

Although it is over seventy years since Olivier Messaien wrote Visions de l’Amen, it seemed a fitting conclusion to this year’s Metropolis New Music Festival. Messiaen’s Couleurs de la Cité Céleste was included in the 8pm program of Heavenly Cities, featuring members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and pianist Michael Kieran Harvey.

A contingent of pianists and performers were amongst those with sufficient stamina and enthusiasm to hear Aura Go (pictured) and Tomoe Kawabata put the Melbourne Recital Centre’s two fine Steinways through their paces for Messaien’s fascinating series of visions. By the end of the piece an hour later many were on their feet to applaud the duo’s energising recital.

Visions de l’Amen was first performed in Nazi-occupied Paris under semi-secret conditions in 1943, two years after his release from Stalag VIII where he had spent eight months as a prisoner of war. Messiaen wrote the seven part work to be performed with one of his pupils at the Conservatoire, the 17-year-old Yvonne Loriot, a gifted pianist who later became his wife. Charged with emotional intensity, the work is at once deeply spiritual manifestation of his Catholic faith and a sensuous intertwining of the two voices. Although the almost erotic quality was possibly most striking in the fourth movement, Amen du Désir, a luxuriant resonant warmth with finely judged shades of weighted tone was apparent from Kawabata’s second piano throughout the work. Even the descending notes of doom and final blows of Vision 6, Amen du Jugement were delivered with impressive eloquence.

Also evident from the outset was the sympathetic musical understanding between Kawabata and Go that propelled this performance as Amen de la Création gained momentum in a steady crescendo from its hushed beginnings. Without being in the least distracting, in fact the performance benefitted from this visual element, the rhythmic pulse literally flowed through the bodies of both pianists.

With much of Go’s first piano part featuring cascades of ecstatic figurations in the treble reaches, her crisp, clean technique gave added brilliance to Messiaen’s exacting rhythmic complexities. Whether rejoicing in the light of Vision 1, providing crystalline purity to the celestial tenderness of Amen du Désir, generating bird song at its most animated in Vision 5, Amen des Anges, de Saints, du chant des oiseaux or encompassing the full stretch of the final Amen de la Consommation with its soft peals evoking Paradise, Go imbued the music with virtuosic colour and dynamism.

The only element that may have added to an ambiance of focused spirituality was the auditorium lighting. The stage was bathed effectively in soft blue light and both pianists, Kawabata in gleaming silver and Go in softly flowing black, were given spotlights at just the right level of spotlight; it seemed a shame that the dimming of the auditorium was unaccountably sparing. If this resulted from a fear that the audience would drift off to sleep at such late hour, then it should have soon become apparent that there was no chance of that. These two young pianists were positively riveting in a work that offered huge rewards for the listener.

Melbourne audiences have been treated with a series of astonishing performances of Messiaen’s piano music over the past few weeks, beginning with Pierre Laurent Aimard’s superlative reading of Vingt regards sur l’enfant-Jésus for the MRC’s Great Performers series. Aura Go and Tomoe Kawabata have followed suit with their profoundly moving, subtle and often exuberant interpretation of another Messiaen masterpiece.